The Hetoimasia (Gr. ἑτοιμασία, “preparation”), or Throne of Preparation, is one of the most widespread images in iconography, particularly in Orthodox Christianity. It very rarely dominates any composition it is part of, so the image and its significance can be overlooked. In this article, the image and its history is explored through three interpretations of what the Throne represents.
The empty throne representing Christ
The empty throne is a pre-Christian symbol of invisible or absent authority. Empty thrones are used in ancient art to represent gods in a wide range of cultures, whilst the Etruscans literally placed empty seats at the head of a table during religious feasts for the god to invisibly join the company. From the time of Alexander the Great onwards, the empty throne is also used in Greek culture to represent human monarchs where they were absent from proceedings. This was carried on into the Christian era, so that at the First Ecumenical Council, for example, an empty throne bearing the royal insignia was present to represent the Emperor Constantine, who otherwise did not take part in the bishops’ meeting.
By the time of the second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople, a Gospel Book rests upon empty throne, not representing the Emperor, but Jesus Christ. Using the throne to represent Christ is obvious, given the clear references to Jesus as king in the Scriptures. During holidays, the Christian ruler of the Byzantine Empire would sit on a throne which itself was situated to the right of an even grander, empty, throne representing Christ and His sovereignty over all. Iconography of the same period (i.e. the first millennium) often shows the throne as backless with a footstool. Draped over the throne is a robe, in Tyrian purple or else elaborately decorated to represent imperial authority. Also present are symbols of the Passion: the Cross, the spear, and the sponge soaked in vinegar. The ancient symbol of victory – the laurel wreath – is hung on the Cross to declare the message of the Passion being a moment of victory for Christ.
The specific arrangement of items around the Throne in iconography may be a reflection of how the physical “empty throne” of Christ was displayed on feast days. Regardless, the composition persisted into the medieval period and is still present today. The only variation is the occasional presence of a chalice (or other vessel) representing the Eucharist, nails of the Crucifixion, or the rendering of the laurel-wreath as the crown of thorns worn by Christ. These later variations change the emphasis of the Hetoimasia slightly, away from the image of Christ as victorious monarch, and onto the crucifixion and the Eucharistic sacrifice. However, both forms of the Empty Throne exist side-by-side.
An image of the Holy Trinity
It must be stressed that the Hetoimasia as described above does not represent Christ as an “absent” king, but as an invisible presence. In this sense it hearkens back to the original use of the throne to represent divine, rather than absent secular, authority. In some icons of Pentecost, the Throne of Preparation is used to show the presence of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit (e.g. The Pentecost Mosaic of San Marco, Venice).
Here a dove represents the Holy Spirit, and resting upon the Throne we suddenly see the Hetoimasia as a symbol of the Holy Trinity: the dove is the Spirit, the Gospel Book is the Son (the Word), and the throne itself is the Father.
The throne of the Last Judgment
As already described, the Hetoimasia is found as a detail in icons of Pentecost. It is also a detail in icons of Holy Wisdom, as well as in the top-centre of Russian icons of Saints, where it is short-hand for the Holy Trinity. In Russia it is also found on the back of some icons, so that no space is left blank during processions, such as on the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. However, overwhelmingly the most common place to find the hetoimasia is on icons of the Last Judgment.
This is the answer to the question: what is the “Throne of Preparation” prepared for? The answer is the Second Coming of Christ, where the hetoimasia is the “sign of the Son of man” of Matthew 24:30: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. The “sign of the Son of Man” is also interpreted as the Cross, however as the hetoimasia also has a cross there is no contradiction. The Throne as the symbol of the Judgment is also drawn from the Psalms: “But the Lord shall endure forever; He has prepared His throne for judgment.” (Ps 9:7). The Book of Revelation contains the most references to the Judgment Seat, particularly in chapter four. Whilst its true that the book of Revelation describes the throne as occupied, the iconography of the Last Judgment is dynamic and so Christ can be viewed as descending upon the empty Throne ready to judge the world.
Although the image of the Throne of Preparation has changed over the centuries, the three main interpretations: the invisible presence of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the Last Judgment, have co-existed for almost as long. Indeed, the three representations compliment each other: Christ is always invisibly present with us, the Holy Spirit sits on the throne and acts as the vicar of Christ, and at a time we don’t expect we will be brought before the Throne to face God’s Judgment.
Last Judgment | Spur to Repentance (contains images of the hetoimasia)
Wikipedia article on the hetoimasia (has more examples of pre-Christian uses of the “empty throne”)